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Iran’s 40 Years of Strife

The 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution could have offered the West an opportunity to reflect on the failure of four decades of disengagement to bring the Islamic Republic any closer to collapse, or the region any closer to peace. Instead, the Trump administration has doubled down on hostility, with nothing to show for it.

MADRID – In 1971, world leaders as varied as Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, US Vice President Spiro Agnew, and Soviet statesman Nikolai Podgorny gathered in the Iranian city of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the First Persian Empire. They were there to attend a sumptuous party, hosted by Shah Reza Pahlavi, to mark 2,500 years since the founding of the Imperial State of Iran. But less than eight years later, Iran had a new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who referred to this gathering as “the devil’s festival.”

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khomeini had been living in exile (in Turkey, Iraq, and finally in Paris), owing to his denunciation of Iran’s westernization and dependence on the United States under Shah Pahlavi. In 1953, the US and the United Kingdom had propped up Pahlavi by ousting the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized Iran’s oil industry and had sought to reduce the Shah’s powers.

That fateful episode – imbued with the logic of the Cold War – marked the first US operation to depose a foreign leader during peacetime. But it certainly wasn’t the last. Ever since, US foreign policy has been characterized by a steady procession of “regime changes,” which have poisoned Washington’s relations with key regions of the world – perhaps most notably with the Middle East. In the case of Iran, the 1953 coup eroded the Shah’s domestic legitimacy and, along with his repressive temperament and insensitivity to demands for greater social justice, planted the seeds of the 1979 Revolution. Throughout the ensuing 40 years, Iran and the West have been estranged, to say the least.

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